The Internal Revenue Service issued a forceful warning today, reminding churches and other tax-exempt charities that partisan political activities are strictly forbidden under federal tax law.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has an ongoing educational campaign on this issue, welcomed the IRS advisory as a timely reminder in this election year. AU also noted that the agency's statement is bad news for Religious Right groups such as the Christian Coalition that expect to use houses of worship to influence the outcome of November elections.
"The IRS statement provides an important reminder that religion and partisan politics just don't mix," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Churches that ignore the IRS's advice and engage in partisan politicking are playing with fire."
Today's IRS statement says in no uncertain terms that tax-exempt groups, including churches, "are prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office."
Moreover, the tax agency's advisory goes on to explain that churches cannot escape responsibility by claiming non-partisan intentions.
"(A)ctivities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria nevertheless violate the political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3)," the IRS said.
The IRS advisory noted that a New York legal group was denied tax-exempt status because it issued ratings of candidates for office. In 1988, a federal appellate court upheld the tax agency's action.
AU's Lynn said the IRS example is remarkably similar to the activities of the Christian Coalition's voter guide project and should be a wake-up call to churches.
"Pastors should see this statement as one more reason not to distribute Christian Coalition voter guides," Lynn concluded. "As the IRS made clear today, handing out materials that steer voters toward certain candidates can jeopardize your tax exemption."
Lynn noted that the penalties for ignoring federal tax law can be severe, even for houses of worship.
One New York church lost its tax-exempt status in 1995 as a result of engaging in partisan politics. When the church's leaders, represented by Pat Robertson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, sued the IRS to get the exemption back, they lost. On May 12, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously that the IRS was right to pull the church's tax exemption.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.